The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Enough action to entertain and enough Tolkien to satisfy.
December 23, 2013
Much has already been made of Peter Jackson's decision to turn the relatively short novel of The Hobbit (relative to, say, anything else by Tolkien or Peter Jackson) into three, three-hour movies. The first instalment of the 'wasn't-a-trilogy-but-now-is-a-trilogy' trilogy smacked of excess — a painfully slow and padded affair that looked and felt more like an in-store demo for big-screen TVs than a sprawling epic of men and monsters.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is, in that sense, a marked improvement. For one thing, it doesn't take an hour for something to happen. Instead, after a brief yet engaging flashback to the first encounter between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage), the film explodes into life with a pursuit of the Dwarf Dozen et al, and remains — by and large — a pursuit to the end.
In terms of the storyline, well, it's the same as the first film because, as you'll recall, it's still the same story. The dwarves, whose names are entirely forgettable (Boring, son of Boredom and heir to the Realm of Snore), are still on a quest to reclaim their mountain kingdom from Smaug, the gold-loving dragon. Standing between them are a ferocious pack of orcs (Windows Vista) and giant spiders (OSX).
Fans of the book will be surprised to discover an Elven sub-plot has been inserted into the story, meaning fans of Orlando Bloom will be happy to discover Orlando Bloom. Jackson went even further, however, by inventing entirely new characters, most notably the she-Elf 'Tauriel', played by Evangeline Lilly. Fortunately, it's a gamble that paid off, because Tauriel's scenes are amongst the film's best, both in terms of action sequences and her quiet romantic attraction to the dwarf known as…I want to say 'Kili'? (Aidan Turner).
Perhaps the biggest mystery, though, is why, in a film called The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we see an impossibly small amount of Hobbit, and don't meet Smaug until well into the second hour. It's a giant misstep by Jackson in failing to capitalise on Freeman's outstanding performance, with the actor's every confused blink and chuffed nod of the head lighting up the screen.
Similarly, Freeman's scenes with Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) are the undisputed standouts, reuniting the Sherlock duo in battles of wits and words that prove far more engaging than any of those involving swords. Languishing in his ocean of gold like a 747-sized Scrooge McDuck, Smaug is a delectably menacing villain deserving of far greater screen time, and Cumberbatch's mellifluous baritone voice is perfectly applied.
This is a film with enough action to entertain and enough Tolkien to satisfy; however, it ultimately feels more 'distraction' than 'attraction'. As always, the world of Middle Earth looks exquisite on screen, ensuring Tourism New Zealand will remain in good currency for years to come, but it's also a powerful reminder that the unadulterated is almost always more compelling than CGI, and that no amount of special effects wizardry can compete with actual actors acting.
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